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Inviting Elementary Teachers to be Thoughtful Practitioners With iPads

Inviting Elementary Teachers to be Thoughtful Practitioners With iPads

Written by Renee Webster
April 30, 2013

As part of a successful bond proposal, my school district was able to update infrastructure making all our school buildings wireless. They also purchased SmartBoards and iPads.  I knew I wanted to integrate this technology into my third grade curriculum to increase the learning potential for each of my students. My colleagues were also excited about the cart of iPads and quickly began filling each iPad with free downloadable apps.

For years I have taken my students to the computer lab in our building to edit and publish their drafts prior to celebrating their writing. The Teamkids, which is how my students refer to themselves, also have used, a social networking site, to share their thinking and writing. My students are accustomed to using digital voice recorders to capture their discussions, allowing our classroom learning community to access wav files again and again to notice and name the smart thinking learners generate, and to celebrate the thoughtful strategies they demonstrated. Students have also employed digital voice recorders as a way to publish and share their stories in wav files, which I then posted on our webpage.With the opportunity to put an iPad in each student’s hands, I was energized and turned to the Internet to educate myself on how to best fit this technology into my educational pedagogy.

Unexpected Result

Anxious to implement iPads, even though I had just begun my online research, I checked out the iPad cart and demonstrated to my students how to use a counting coin application, following a lesson on counting money.  My third graders were thrilled to interact with the iPads. Nevertheless, I soon noticed that the speed and interactivity of the device (the fun factors) were my young learners’ goals, rather than becoming more proficient in counting coins. Most of my students never took the time to count the coins displayed on their iPad screen. They quickly touched the glass indicating their guess. They cheered when their guess was correct – a win in their minds, and moved speedily onto the next selection of coins.

Over the years, I have learned to use my students’ feedback, work samples, along with my observations, matched with critical readings to analyze my teaching practices. As I reflected on this lesson, it was pretty obvious more learning would have occurred had my third graders worked in partnerships counting real coins to buy things in a mock store than from their work on iPads.

I had placed in my students’ hands an engaging tool of technology. They were eager to interact with it. Since this was their first opportunity to use the iPads in my class, they had paid close attention to my procedural rules, wanting to be allowed to use them again. At the end of the period my students did a fabulous job demonstrating the proper way to handle an iPad, but they were no more accurate in counting coins than before their practice with the coin counting application. As I thought about this, I realized I hadn’t given my students a real need to know how to count coins.  The iPad immediately indicated the correct answer regardless of which answer they tapped. There was a very clear need to learn to handle their iPad in a safe and functional manner because they wanted to continue using this engaging tool.  But a needto know how to count coins wasn’t as obvious. This was a learning moment for me as an educator.

Becoming More Intentional about Integrating iPads into my Classroom

Unpacking this lesson gave me the opportunity to clearly formulate my learning goals for integrating iPads into my classroom. With the high-stake achievement demands on each of my third graders, I contemplated how to use this technology tool, not just to memorize facts, play games, or to entertain students when their schoolwork was finished. On the contrary, I wanted to use iPads as a way to assist my students in synthesizing what they were learning in school; and then to produce something original to share with others, which in the end would empower them as learners and innovators.  This goal set me on a path to seek out applications which allowed learners to create something of their own.  I sought apps like Sock Puppets, StoryKit, and iDiary where students were the designers and creators of content. I showed my third graders how to use the browser and search engines to do I-searches. They loved the playful WilderQuest app for researching about rainforest animals. The Teamkids turned often to the apps Speller or Dictionary to help them with vocabulary and spelling, which led them to be more independent and more accurate in their writing and reading. I continued to mull over how I could be more effective in my implementation of iPads in my classroom.

I decided I wanted to incorporate iPads into my writing workshop. I wondered how composing on an iPad might change how my students drafted, revised, and published their pieces. I was introduced to writing workshop in the late eighties, worked to develop my ability to be a writing workshop teacher throughout the nineties, and to date continue seeking pedagogically sound and sustainable ways to integrate newer literacies and technologies into my third grade writing workshop.  Students are growing up in an age of digital media and I believe I can serve them best by providing them time to explore and compose in digital media. Sharon J. Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project, speaking about Because Digital Writing Matters, a book by Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks states, “Today’s young people are using a range of digital tools to compose and create in new and exciting ways.” She also explains, “It is a game-changing moment for teachers of writing. The very notion of what it means to write is shifting, and educators are faced with adapting their teaching practices to integrate new technologies while redefining writing and learning for the 21st century.” Although my district had provided me resources on teaching writing from several different companies, I had flexibility in creating my own lesson plans to use in my writing workshop. This allowed me the freedom I needed to include digital writing into my curriculum.

Another motive I had for wanting to utilize iPads in my writing workshop was their popularity. My eight and nine-year-old young writers were in love with iPads. Most of the Teamkids played video or some type of digital games at home. I hoped composing digitally on iPads would be the incentive needed to get my reluctant writers to realize they had a voice and a message to share. I needed this popular culture tool to open the door to writing for some closed off learners. One of the subtle changes I have seen in the learners in my classroom, that was not there ten years ago, is the unwillingness of some learners to engage in educational lessons without a highly motivating personal reason for attending. As an educator that has been teaching in elementary classrooms for nearly forty years, I have been a part of many educational reforms. Gone are the school days when students paid attention for fear of getting in trouble and having to take that walk to the principal’s office. Knowing that a phone call from the principal or teacher meant they were in “big trouble” at home, as well as at school. Missing too are the days when the lessons were more theme-based, like Susan Kovalik’s Integrated Thematic Instruction Model. In these classrooms a child’s natural curiosity was immersed into life-based inquiries, and it was perfectly fine to walk to the FFA’s cornfield each month to track the cycle of life occurring there.

Currently, with schools facing an increase of consequences attached to high-stakes tests, schools have been pulled into purchasing more script-based textbooks. Today schools determine the pace by which all teachers should progress through the skills listed in the teaching manuals. Each school sets the number of instructional minutes students receive teaching in each content area. They also allot the amount of time each day to be scheduled for intervention lessons.  As a result elementary teachers have little flexibility, little time, and almost no entry point, to give their lessons a “here and now” real world quality for their students. It is a challenge to provide students with a purpose to engage they willingly accept. Therefore, technology devices, such as iPads, opened doorways and assist teachers, like me, in connecting students with grade level content in engaging and playful ways.

My Research Project: Observing if/how the writing process changes when students compose on their iPads.

I realized it made sense for me to integrate composing on iPads with the lessons I was teaching about our building’s behavior expectations.  My building’s behavior leadership team had launched the year by spending part of two days rotating students through learning stations that demonstrated expected behavior in different locations/situations/events throughout our school building. Procedures for behavior in the lunchroom, during recess, in the hallways, in classrooms, on the bus, and in the restroom were all directly taught and posted. Students modeling expected behaviors were referred to as CARS kids. The C stood for Caring behavior, A – Accountable, R – Respectful, and the S – Safe behavior. The acronym was fitting because a red Rambler car is the mascot for my school district. This was all part of our MiBLSi Behavior Management Plan. As required by law, we adopted a bully prevention program. My district adopted Stop-Walk-Talk. I wanted to give my students a “need to know”, in other words, a reason for digging into these behavior expectations and an engaging opportunity for them to communicate their understanding of these concepts with a real audience.

I launched my students’ digital writing opportunity with an invitation for them to use the StoryKit application on the iPads to teach other students in our building how to be a CARS kid and understand how to use the Stop-Walk-Talk procedures when in bullying situations. I wanted my students to discovery how digital media drew them to consider multiple modalities for creating their message. In this age of rapid technological change I wanted my young writers to experience the impact of different photo choices, design, and color. I wanted them to explore how both text and audio compositions might extend their message and to consider how all of these elements worked together to inform their audience.

I gathered the Teamkids on the rug, our usual spot for launching writing workshop each day. I had purchased an adapter cord for my LCD projector so I could plug it into an iPad and demonstrate to my class on the SmartBoard exactly how to use the StoryKit application.  I began by showing the book I had created about my daughter’s cat, Nike, using StoryKit. Procedures for creating a digital story using an iPad and the StoryKit application are user-friendly and extremely suitable for allowing young children to compose independently. Also, instructions for this app were easily available at – .

My students’ eyes danced with excitement as their bodies bounced on the carpet. We stepped into our planning stage of the writing process. Students understood the purpose of the digital book they were composing on their iPad was to teach other students in our building about CARS behaviors. A lot of options and choices remained to be explored before they made their decisions about their message. It was time to brainstorm, gather information, and consider personal interest. Standing at the SmartBoard I began listing their ideas. Hands waved as they offered their suggestions:

  • Someone might decide to teach other kids about one part or one letter in CARS, like how to be caring on the playground, caring in the lunchroom, and caring in the classroom.
  • Someone could tell about one place in the school. We could study kids at recess and write about how a first grader can be caring, accountable, respectful and safe while on the playground.
  • Someone might decide to write about all of them – be a CARS Kid all the time.
  •  You could write about something you did, like when you helped someone, like a memory of what really happened.
  •  You could tell why you should be a CARS Kid, how you feel inside – proud.
  •  You could write about when someone was nice to you and tell how they acted like a CARS Kid.
  • You could even write about someone that wasn’t behaving as a CARS Kid and what happened.


We created a long list of possible ways to write about CARS Kids with the purpose of teaching others, which included narratives, how-to pieces, and cause and effect formats. I reminded my 3rd graders to think about their audience. Who did they plan to share their book with when they were done: classmates, other classrooms, or other teachers? Considering their audience would influence the choices they made regarding the words, pictures, and the drawings they would incorporate into their project.

Now it was time for the 3rd graders to envision their compositions. I sent them off to meet with partners or in small groups to talk about the book they would like to create. After about ten minutes of robust conversations I called for their attention and transitioned students back to their tables to record their plans. They could write or draw a sketch indicating what they planned to pursue. It would be their choice to work independently, with a partner, or in a small group. However, I wanted each 3rd grader to compose on StoryKit, even if they were co-composing the piece, as I wanted everyone to have the experience of interfacing with this multimodal tool.

We started the next day reviewing our plans from the previous day. We talked briefly about remembering to consider our audience and what we wanted our audience to know. I again showed my Nike piece;  this time to demonstrate how I had considered the arrangement of pages, along with how I had thought about both the visual and audible information I included in my story. Students returned to their tables for sandbox time, in other words, an exploration time to play on StoryKit. As I continued to model on the Smartboard, students used the StoryKit application on their iPad to explore how to add pages, insert text, take a photo of a drawing, set up a photo shot, and zoom in or out directly from the StoryKit application. They also learned to find and use pictures located in the iPad camera roll and insert them into their book. They learned to delete images and pages, use the cursor icon to insert and delete text, along with using the auto-spell feature. Students loved playing with the drawing options and filling their pages with colors and designs. They tried the stretch and shrink options using their fingertips to fit photos and text in selected spots on their pages. Lastly we noted that later in the project we would want to come back to the title page and insert their name and title.

Writing workshop the following day started with Teamkids meeting in their groups or partnerships to rehearse the first steps in their digital writing. Carrying their written plans with them, students shared their ideas about what they planned to write, draw, and use for photos. For my young writers, this envisioning step was very important, as they actually got a chance to talk-through the words they would write in their pieces. This time to “say-what-I-will-say” helped my young writers formulate their message. As these 3rd grade writers gained experience, they were more able to plan on their own. This envisioning stage was also helpful for writers that were struggling to come up with their own plan, because it allowed them the opportunity to modify someone else’s idea and create a plan of their own.

Working alone, with a partner, or with a group of three, students were humming with purposeful work on their digital stories. They were creating something of their own. With intellectual and artistic purpose they poured themselves into their projects.  I let them work through our scheduled math time, and only stopped them when we needed to switch classrooms for our scheduled RTI intervention lessons. Even the couple of students that normally needed coaching to get started during writing workshop were eagerly interacting with their digital writing projects.

Noticing New Learning Behaviors

It was striking to watch how different kids began to naturally share their discoveries, demonstrating for classmates how they had learned to manipulate and successfully use the options available on StoryKit. During our previous sandbox play (exploration time), these young writers had realized that the text of what they wanted to say would need to be written down on paper at some point, because when the record button was selected in StoryKit, it opened a new window which didn’t allow students to see what they had written on the StoryKit page. In the end some students ended up composing text together on the app, revising on the app, and later copying from the iPad onto paper to record their text so they could see their words. Others composed on paper first, revised, then recorded. A third group drafted on paper, typed it into the StoryKit app, revised digitally after hearing suggestions from peers (sometimes over and over), then recopied their revisions to paper to record their audio. It was interesting to see the students re-conceptualize themselves as teachers, happy to take time away from their project to mentor someone else on what they had discovered.  I watched Sam’s group come to a stand-still observing how Mary recruited volunteers and orchestrated a role-play scene where one student stopped to help another student that had supposedly tripped and fallen down, as she captured the event on her iPad. Sam’s group went back to their huddled conversation, and as I stopped to monitor their discussion I listened to their talk concerning how they were noticing the classroom, their bodies, and objects in the room in whole new ways and with new purposes. It was spellbinding to see all of my students, some of whom I struggle daily to gain their attention, being so enthralled and intentional in what they were creating. I didn’t have to nudge anyone awake, even those students that stay up half the night watching television.

We launched our writing workshop the next day with each student re-reading his or her digital story with “fresh new eyes” to confirm he or she was communicating clearly the intended message, in words, photos, color, and voice. We took a few minutes to answer questions from the group, and then split apart for more work time. Towards the end of our writing workshop time, I noticed one of my groups, Hannah and Karrie, trying to decide if they were finished, I knew it was time for a focus writing lesson on writing conclusions. I asked the girls if they would be willing to share their piece with the group.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-04-30 15:29

Draft of the first page of Karrie and Hannah’s CARS piece.

The next day I pulled the students together to fishbowl the girls’ piece. My students sat in a large circle on the rug while Karrie, Hannah, and I sat down in the center of the circle to talk about what they were trying to do in their digital book. With the girls’ permission I projected their digital story on the SmartBoard so everyone could see and hear our conversation.  They had cleverly drawn and colored an 8 x10 sheet of paper, like a poster on CARS, with students intertwined around the letters. Karrie began explaining their work. The girls had started their introduction by taking a photo of their picture and inserting it into their book. I congratulated them on remembering that their digital story needed an introduction, that important hook to make the reader want to continue reading their piece. Heads outside the fishbowl nodded as I had already taught a focus lessons on introductions. I heard whispers and surmised other Teamkids would be returning to their work to revise and add their own introductions.  The girls’ next page zoomed in with their iPad’s camera and showed a close-up of only the letter C. They inserted the close up of the C and wrote text about what it meant to be a caring CARS Kid. They continued this pattern with a close up of the letter A … and the R… and the S… along with the information about what the letter stood for, which is where their piece stopped. I asked them to tell me more about their plan and each girl eagerly shared what she had contributed, the ideas that had been discarded or used, and how they had decided who would do the recording on each page. I asked what they were working on now, or needed help with, and both agreed they needed help deciding if they were done. Many third graders struggle with writing conclusions. This fishbowl conference was a great opportunity for me to demonstrate for the many Teamkids poised at this same place in their digital stories, the questions writers ask themselves when they are wrapping up a piece. The girls decided their story just stopped and needed a conclusion. I model a few techniques for composing a satisfying ending to their digital pieces.

The time at the rug was longer than normal, because I also took a few minutes to talk with the Teamkids about what they had noticed the three or us doing during the fishbowl conference. I believed it was important for my students to pull out and name the writing intentions used by the girls, along with the attributes that contributed to a positive conference. I quickly jotted a list as they talked. I validated their smart thinking and promised to create an anchor chart to post next to the SmartBoard for them to refer to as they conferenced with each other. I stressed that there was only one of me, and to make good use of their time they could meet with a classmate when they were ready to conference. I created an “I’m an Expert” board on the magnetic whiteboard at the side of the room. Students fastened magnets with their names on them to decorated signs that indicated the writing crafts or skill they felt they were skilled at using. Teamkids wanting help were able to easily see who had signed up as an expert in writing an introduction, an expert in using similes, an expert in thinking of transition words, writing endings, writing complete sentences, etc. The Teamkids have continued to use the “I’m an Expert” board whenever they are seeking another classmate to confer with over a piece of writing.

As the Teamkids continued to work on their digital pieces, the classroom scenery filled with students teaching each other how to use StoryKit to meet their personal writing intentions. I saw students sharing possible solutions or ideas when another classmate was stuck. I observed students getting excited over a friend’s technique or idea. The noise level in the room increased two notches after Kyle discovered the color palette for drawing. I watched as a student that normally pushes back at the suggestion of any revision completely deleted a whole page in one instance, when all that was needed was a little editing. When I gasped, explaining about using the cursor to make the changes, the student told me; “It’s okay. It’s better this way. It’s more fun to do it again.” I inferred – he enjoys creating, he is experiencing satisfaction in producing this digital book, he is self-directed, he is confident and happy about writing another page just the way he wants it, he is able to self-assess his work, and he will let me know when he has the page the way he wants it.

Watching my students composing on their iPads was interesting because revision happened throughout the process and it happened very quickly. Most revisions my students make on paper I am able track through their cross-outs and additions. Unless I had watched an earlier version of a digital story or observed a student while he was revising, I was not able to capture all the revisions in these digital pieces.  My third graders revised their work constantly as they re-read and re-watched their work and viewed their classmates’ projects.  They seemed always willing to add one more thing to the project, to the point that I began to worry that the quality of their digital books would begin to diminish, as they strayed from their original plan – to have a reason to keep working with the StoryKit application. I actually had to have another focus lesson on revision to model how to take out pieces of information that pulled readers’ focus away from the message of the story. I discussed how a writer knows when a piece is complete and has hit the target. I let my digital writers know that once their digital books reached that point they should do what writers do, which is look through their story ideas, and start to plan for another digital story on StoryKit.

Finding an Audience Image originally uploaded on 2013-04-30 15:17

When the projects were complete, the Teamkids spent two writing workshops taking turns sitting in the author’s chair, projecting their digital CARS piece onto the SmartBoard and presenting them to the class. The authors took questions afterwards to explain their thinking and received congratulations on the ideas and writing craft they had used in their digital stories.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-04-30 15:19

An unplanned event which occurred during the Q & As was the Teamkids’ attempt to name each new composing technique they noticed. With overflowing enthusiasm they named: the first person to place two photos on a page, the first to make a full-page photo, the first to place the speaker icon at the top of a page, and the first to color the background. Students noticed different patterns and designs in the background, they noticed alternating photos and drawings, and they even pointed out the first Teamkids to use a how-to format and the first narrative story.  They wondered why a writer let the text stand alone verses including an audio button to go with it. They wondered why an author had his text say something a little different than the audio and talked about the expressive language they heard in the recordings.  Students noticed when the shot was staged, if the writer zoomed-in, if the picture was hard to see, their list went on-and-on. Both the writer’s message and the writer’s techniques were part of their after-the-author chair discussion. These discussions were more detailed than previous author chair book talks.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-04-30 15:20

Example shows student using multiple visuals to teach our building’s bully prevention lesson – Stop. Walk. Talk.

Like in many elementary schools, the Teamkids have a buddy class. Their first grade buddies are the Ernst Explorers. I arranged for the two groups to meet in the library so the Teamkids could use their iPads to share their digital stories and teach the first graders about being a CARS Kid. The event was a big hit for both the first graders and the very proud third graders. They learned they could help the first graders learn about CARS and they could help each other learn to be better digital writers.

With the project complete, I wanted to figure out how to move the digital stories from the iPads to my students’ families and to the district’s website for public viewing. The first roadblock I came upon was my students’ lack of an email address. In order to share their stories an email account needed to be entered into the settings on each iPad.  To test the sharing process I used my own email address on one of the student iPads. With the email address accessed, StoryKit saved the student’s story to a StoryKit site. I then had the option to send a link of the story to an email address. I emailed the student’s digital StoryKit piece to myself. Since the student iPads are shared with other classrooms in my building, I needed to go back into the settings on the iPad and delete my email address.

When I opened the email containing Mary’s StoryKit digital piece, I discovered the audio links did not travel with the story nor did any of the interactivity of the application, such as flipping the pages. The link contained the story with text, drawings, and photos in a series of pdf-like representations. I was disappointed, but I still wanted to share the Teamkids’ work with their families. We invited everyone’s family to our Valentine’s Day gathering. Students shared their digital stories for an audience of family and friends. In the end, even though the digital stories didn’t leave the iPads, they had a significant impact on my students. Parents and grandparents of the Teamkids continue to contact me requesting the name of the app we used to create our digital stories because they wanted to download it on their personal iPad, iPod, or iPhones.  In fact, sitting across the table from Karrie and her parents during our spring conference, Karrie started talking about another digital story she was working on when, to my surprise, she pulled her hand out of her coat pocket, grasping a little white iPod. She quickly pulled up the StoryKit app to show me her newest piece.

Click on the link CARS piece to view Mary’s thoughtful CARS piece. Her strong voice and transitions are missing in this PDF format. However, you can view her formating choices, the arrangement of text, and her overall message.

My Conclusions

I surveyed the Teamkids seeking to hear from them how they felt about digital writing. The results of the technology survey, the quality of my students’ work, their attitudes about themselves as writers, and my personal observations all document that the process of drafting, revising, and publishing did change when my third graders compose in a digital format. Engagement increased in each stage of the writing process when digital media was connected to it. Students showed they were more intentional about their message, along with being more intentional in their use of craft (or techniques). The Teamkids demonstrated a higher degree of ownership in their CARS composition. They also had a high degree of satisfaction with their writing. Any classroom educator will tell you that it is really difficult to try and teach a student when that student is not engaged in the learning process. Thus, as an educator, I am holding on to my learning moment with iPads to help me integrate these new technologies into my classroom.  I am excited to contemplate with my students what it means to view and create multi-media digital compositions.  Additionally, I want to think more on how I can better use these new technologies to provide a more playful learning environment in all content areas, to frame activities in ways that are less stressful for my students, where learners have fun in and through their struggles to construct understandings.  Hopefully, even in today’s restrictive teaching environments, I will be able to use digital tools, such as iPads, to support multiple pathways of learning in my classroom.

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